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Erotic sociability and a multitude of senses.

  • Oct 20 2020
  • Isabel Lewis
    is a Berlin-based artist born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in 1981 and raised on a man-made island off the coast of southwest Florida.

It is a persistent compulsion of mine to ask why any particular recognisable format of experience is the way it is, be it a book, a romantic relationship, an exhibition, a film, a strip club, a conference, a garden, or a dinner party? What does each format suggest as a way of ordering the sensible? Which customs and behaviours is it hospitable to? How does power and responsibility distribute itself among the implicated agents that comprise it? And in what ways does any particular format contour or even prescribe what can be said/read/enacted and furthermore how does it position who can say/read/do it?

There are three focal points I’d like you to keep in mind as we move through this presentation:   

-The first is my critique of the VISUAL as a dominant modality of knowledge acquisition in an era disproportionately dependent upon quantitative assessment of reality and lacking in tools for qualitative understanding. I’d like to advocate for the rehabilitation of the unified human sensorium and more nuanced and embodied modalities of knowledge acquisition.

-The second is the idea of COMPOSITION as a form of care.

-And the third is FORMAT and how the questions of which format to work in and how are deeply political ones

Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 1991


[Made into song with vocal processor] 5 min:

“The eyes have been used to signify a perverse capacity - honed to perfection in the history of science tied to militarism, capitalism, colonialism, and male supremacy - to distance the knowing subject from everybody and everything in the interests of unfettered power. The instruments of visualization…have compounded these meanings of dis-embodiment. The visualizing technologies are without apparent limit; the eye of any ordinary primate like us [start looping] can be endlessly enhanced by sonography systems, magnetic resonance imaging, artificial intelligence-linked graphic manipulation systems, scanning electron microscopes, computer-aided tomography scanners, colour enhancement techniques, satellite surveillance systems, home and office VDTs, cameras for every purpose from filming the mucous membrane lining the gut cavity of a marine worm living in the vent gases on a fault between continental plates to mapping a planetary hemisphere elsewhere in the solar system.[stop loop] Vision in this technological feast becomes unregulated gluttony; all perspective gives way to infinitely mobile vision, which no longer seems just mythically about the god-trick of seeing everything from nowhere, but to have put the myth into ordinary practice. 

[Switch to speaking mic]

The eyes and vision in the history of the West were not always associated with the hygienic cleanliness of distanced observation. Medieval people strongly believed in the "evil eye” and the idea that a curse or disease could be passed and transmitted through the eyes.


And according to Aristotle, “the organ of sight not only is acted upon by its object, but acts reciprocally upon it. If a woman looks into a highly polished mirror during the menstrual period, the surface of the mirror becomes clouded with a blood-red colour…


close your eyelids

most eyes have an anterior to posterior diameter of 24 millimetres, a volume of six cubic centimetres (0.4 cu. in.), and a mass of 7.5 grams, about the weight of a quarter and a dime


The eye is not shaped like a perfect sphere, rather it is a fused two-piece unit, composed of the anterior segment and the posterior segment.

The front of the eye is made up of the cornea, iris and lens. The cornea is 1/5 of the eye and the larger back portion of the eye, composed of the vitreous, retina, choroid and the outer white shell called the sclera is the remaining 5/6ths .


move eyes in sockets


This fine and precise movement of the eyes is controlled by six muscles. When these muscles exert different tensions, a torque is exerted on the globe that causes it to turn, in almost pure rotation, with only about one millimeter of translation. Thus, the eye can be considered as undergoing rotations about a single point in the center of the eye.


Now look at me. Maybe try to read me. Read my look, read my thoughts, read my desires read

And so I begin at the beginning with a story, a story told from the understanding that any act of telling others about oneself is at once the making of oneself in relation to others and that this relation has a narrative quality that this narrative is inevitably always incomplete whilst aiming at authenticity and that any claim to authenticity is always a kind of performance.

There was a child born to a large family in the Dominican Republic to a Dominican mother and a Jewish-American father. The child was second in birth order and naturally followed everything her older sister did and so became a ballerina. She moved with a musicality inherited from her Afro-Caribbean ancestry. Her ears accustomed to the polyrhythms and syncopation of Merengue Tipico, had no trouble coordinating Classical Music with her body, an Afro-Carribean body, a body at odds with the particular and peculiar notions of the body of 17th Century France. Here begins her observation and embodied understanding of the complex process by which cultures create bodies....Any naively held notions of dance a liberatory, transcendent, and natural were strangled over time but in their place grew an intellectual passion for tracing cultural histories through the body by learning ever more approaches to dance. She starts asking what are the value systems inherent in these steps, positions and movements? What kind of body does this form of dance imagine and produce? 

 The teenage ballerina took her coded body to the club, Da Vibe, a hip hop club in Sarasota, Florida that sat exactly on the border of the Black neighborhood of this highly segregated city. It was the mid-nineties and she would alternate the weekends: hip hop and marajuana in the city and drum n bass and techno raves on ecstasy in abandoned warehouses on the city’s outskirts. The nights spent in these spaces would spark her lifelong fascination with alternative modes of sociability and multiply existing codes of behavior as well as the fluidity and performativity of identity construction through stylizing dress, speech, and movement.



Jumping a few years ahead the dancing teenager finds herself  at a women’s university in rural Virginia. She decided to study Literary Theory. The young student learned about words and what words do, then she learned how to do things with words thanks to J.L. Austen. She applied Austen’s notion of “performative utterances” along with Judith Butler’s extrapolations into queer theory to her approach to choreography.  She wanted to do things with dance not merely represent things.  She began studying the 1960s experiments of the Judson Dance Theater and as a young adult all that all inclusive democracy had her drunk on “freedom”, a liberatory politics for dance technique, a breaking loose from the strictures of old ballet. But the feeling was short-lived and in the haze of hangover the student could ascertain that the loose, “pedestrian”, and universal body that jostled around freely in sweatpants and trainers was not at all universal, it was specifically white and specifically middle class and specifically able. It seemed to aim at neutrality, but what was neutrality if not a kind of invisibility cloak, the spectre of a removed, self-confident, world-dominating, objectifying subject that could by dint of its privileged position in the world declare itself as neutral and its actions and movements pure and free? Because of learning the dances of the Judson era she could immerse into the codedness of this particular subject position. She observed how even she herself could take up this worldview that it seemed to form the world around her and she wanted out.

She found escape in science fiction’s imaginings of other worlds. Philip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson and then Octavia Butler and feminist sci-fi brought her back to earth, to this world and feminist critique and reimaginings of it. She became more interested in Yvonne Rainer’s films than in her dances. Feminist film theory, the art of William Pope L., Karin Finley, and David Hammons moved her and she spent her final year of university performing drag, becoming an award winning drag king as Justin Timberlake. 

 She graduated with degrees in literary criticism and choreography, but the most important thing she got during those years of study was the practice of moving between the library and the dance studio, this intertwining of the bodily and the intellectual.  She identified with writing of Edouard Glissant, creolization was her origin and hybridity as a strategy of art-making seemed second nature to her. She continued working with dance as it seemed to her to be an example par excellence of Foucault’s technologies of the self, a way to be concerned with the self, to care for oneself, and to ultimately know oneself. And so she danced for many choreographers and made her own dances for the stage: a duet for a solo dancer and a lighting designer, each one pursuing independent scores, in a  roulette game of vision and visibility. This was her first choreography. The wariness of the stage’s promise to deliver the image for capture for the eyes of the audience was clear early on.


"I felt strongly that experimenting with existing formats and working toward the development of new formats could have a radical potential of producing new stories and new rituals that could shape a new world with a reorientation of systems of value."


There was a lip-synching routine to a mysterious and dark Ethopian psych-rock song while draped head to toe in a shiny silver reflective fabric, like mercury dripping over her body, inviting the objectification and exotification of her own form while reflecting the audience back to itself...and more and more stage works. All the while she struggled with the format of the theater. She was uneasy with the way it favoured the eye and she questioned if dance could operate beyond the merely representational. The question of format, and whether dance could be experienced in new ways became ever more urgent for her. Marcel Mauss and Foucault led her to the sociological concept of habitus as a system of embodied dispositions, tendencies that organize the ways in which individuals perceive the social world around them and react to it. This became for her the starting point of all dances and all artistic gestures. 

Every human act and human work originates from a body and mind shaped by its specific mix of group culture and personal history and while I continued to study other thinkers that shaped the way we see the 20th century like Weber, Marx, and Freud I did so with a different feeling, with a clearer understanding of the subject position from which their works were written and limits of this particular modality of meaning production thanks to Audre Lorde, Coco Fusco, and feminist sociologist Roslyn Bologh. Bologh dared me to dream alternative visions of human interrelations that could be grounded in love, in desire, in mutual respect and pleasure, rather than in competition, coercion, and conflict. Her 1994 book Love or Greatness opened a world in me with her theory of erotic sociability. With the help of Donna Haraway and Saidiya Hartman, I began to see the facts that construct our world as kinds of stories we tell ourselves and our institutions as kinds of rituals we enact. I felt strongly that experimenting with existing formats and working toward the development of new formats could have a radical potential of producing new stories and new rituals that could shape a new world with a reorientation of systems of value.

After 9 years of experimenting with ways of operating upon the theater, I felt the urgent need to change the way I thought about the performer/audience contract and its tendency to create polarity between active and passive modes. I wanted to redefine this for myself and to delineate a particular agency for myself within a situation with other agents who also had their own individual kinds of agency, I wanted something more social, something more shared. I wanted to be in the same space of presence with my public not behind the proverbial 4th wall. The best way I could articulate the particular agencies I was looking for was in the figures of host and guests. A host is the clear composer of the situation of hosting guests and guests are individuals invited into the situation. The host is responsible and accountable for what happens at a particular occasion. The host sets the table, or the stage as it were for an experience with others. The first work in which I activate the notion of the host for myself is Strange Action in 2010 presented at PS122. The location of the occasion happened to be the space of the theater but the usual codes did not apply. As soon as guests entered the space the occasion was underway. People were greeted at the door, the space was lit evenly with no demarcation of the stage area and the music was at a lively but comfortable level for speaking. I began to directly address and speak with the public who slowly took their seats to listen and interact. By hosting my guests I opened up to entirely new ways of thinking for myself about what a choreography could be. I started dreaming of the choreography of the entire situation. What does it feel like, smell like, what’s the vibe in the air and the sound? How does it interact with a site and what can happen outside the context of the theater?

Just after this premiere I relocate to Berlin. I become much more interested in dance as it emerges from within culture rather than as the visual display and representation of the body. 

I began writing down my ideas about social dances as storage systems for culture. For example when you look at Classical Ballet which developed in the courts of Italy and France in 16th and 17th century as well as at the Italian and French gardens of the same period you find the robust expression of the Renaissance ideals of harmony and balance. The Enlightenment’s values of reason, mind over matter, and human power over nature are readable in the symmetrical plantings, the clean lines of hedges, and dramatic perspectives which emphasize scopic power. Ballet and topiary are perfect demonstrations of this rather quaint idea that humans can dominate nature. I began to read gardens the way I was reading dances. 

In 2012 I found a humble little book which became very influential for the way I think about composition. The book, by David E. Cooper, is called A Philosophy of Gardens. It’s central inquiry is trying to understand why gardens have been important to humans since even before agricultural societies emerged. Cooper points out that much academic writing on the garden is often written from two points of view: thinking of the garden as art and thinking of the garden as nature. He makes a claim for the garden to be read as meaningful to humans on its own terms as it is neither “art” nor “nature” but as a mediation between the human and non-human worlds. What he seems to be getting at is that when engaging with the garden our sensibilities become tuned to reflect upon the mystery of that which is much bigger than our individual agencies. In defense of his claim he embarks on a phenomenological discussion referencing Merleau-Ponty ideas about atmosphere or “field of presence” as being an important aspect of the appreciation of the gardens, the effect of the arrangements of the elements of a garden both seen and unseen on the overall tone of the experience. Cooper goes on to reference Arnold Berleant’s theory of “aesthetic engagement.” Aesthetic engagement for Berleant is an alternative to traditional aesthetic theory which relies upon the Kantian disinterestedness and distanced observation. Aesthetic engagement involves active participation “in the “appreciative process” by “creative perceptual involvement.” Cooper says that gardens are not objects of aesthetic gaze but are rather ‘occasions’ of active engaged experience and are hospitable to differing forms of engagement simultaneously. It’s from A Philosophy of Gardens that I take up the term occasion as the format I would introduce to my field and which now forms the foundation for my understanding of a range of related compositional modes such as arrangements, occurrences, activations, listening sessions, workshops, and sensory parcours that I explore. 

Gardens helped me to conceptually frame all the things I considered choreography, not just the choreography of the performers but the unfolding of the perception of the visitor that could be guided by the shaping of attention in the same way gardens that shape the experience of a visitor through intentional compositional choices. Gardens are exactly a form of composition that does not suppress its own contingency and vulnerability. While formally resilient they are non-autonomous, the experience of a garden is entirely vulnerable to changes in weather, a sudden shift of light when a cloud passes over the sun, the seasons, and animal life that operates in and upon it. In fact all things that appear static are affected in this way, it’s just that most art tries to suppress this feature while I am interested in allowing it. I am dedicated to composing for all of the senses. By collaborating with architects, scientists, musicians, flavor chemists and dancers I compose situational choreographies that serve at practices of attunement in hopes of generating hospitable conditions to get in touch—to invigorate and renovate not only our interhuman relations but also our intercourse with all things living and nonliving.








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